By: Sara Franklin-White

In an era of technology and digital innovation, industries are increasingly consumed with finding ways to make daily processes more effective and efficient. In recent years, artificial intelligence (“AI”) has grown exponentially as a way to achieve those goals – between 2014 and 2021, the market size for AI is predicted to increase more than 10-fold.[1]

So, what does that mean for the health space, and more specifically (and imminently), how can AI propel coronavirus research forward?

AI in Health

In the health space, artificially intelligent systems are rapidly expanding – AI has been poised to “revolutionize the way in which medicine is practiced and thereby transform how healthcare is delivered.”[2] Since machine learning tools can be reliably trained to quickly recognize patterns and trends and can perform human-like tasks in response, it is understandable why these tools would be employed in patient care. For example, a commonly discussed benefit of using AI in healthcare systems is its ability to rapidly diagnose and recommend treatments for disease – an ultimate benefit for patients and an optimization for healthcare professionals by giving them more time to treat more patients. Patients benefit from increased accuracy and efficiency – the sooner they learn about a diagnosis, the sooner they will be able to make a decision about how they would like to proceed with their treatment.

AI has also been successful in image-intensive specialities, such as radiology, pathology, ophthalmology and cardiology because with the right data, “AI algorithms can identify subtle and complex associations that are unavailable with traditional analytic approaches.”[3] In a recent study, AI was found to be 99% accurate and 30 times faster than clinicians in reviewing and translating mammograms, leading to earlier detection of breast cancer than healthcare workers could achieve.[4]

The applications of AI in healthcare are broad and deep – so how can digital health and AI tools be deployed in addressing public health and the coronavirus?

AI and COVID-19

AI technology has shown tremendous promise in tackling large-scale global health problems. In Rwanda, virtual health consulting covers one-third of the adult population that may otherwise not be able to access healthcare systems.[5] AI is used in India to predict the risk of a heart attack seven years before it may happen, which is significant for triage and the efficiency of a health system serving a population of over one billion.[6]

In considering the novel coronavirus pandemic, AI systems have and will continue to play a fundamental role in knowledge growth, detection, diagnosis, decision support and development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

What AI-based research has been done?

Examples include:

· Researchers at the University of Toronto are using AI tools to “identify existing drugs that may be effective against COVID-19.”[7]

· In India, researchers have identified the use of AI tools in early detection and diagnosis of the infection.[8]

· In the US, leaders in medical imaging, AI, government, data science, academia and industry have collaborated to use AI tools to “assess disease severity, predict response to treatment, and improve patient outcomes.”[9]

What AI tools have been helpful throughout the pandemic?

·, a startup company in the US employing an AI algorithm to help healthcare organizations use their own datasets from patient data to get actionable results, has been employed to assess coronavirus risk for millions of patients, including those who are high risk, in the US: “Today, the model…has been used to assess the vulnerability of communities around the country. Care organizations have used the model to project patient surges and help individuals at the highest risk understand what they can do to prevent infection.”[10]

· With this information, these care organizations can let socially isolated seniors or COVID-19 patients, for instance, know about community groups that deliver groceries

While these are just some examples of how global nations are engaging with AI models in their COVID-19 response and clinical decision-making, what the pandemic has importantly emphasized is that countries must collaborate. As international leaders in science and technology are using the automation, deep learning tools and big data available to them, sharing those insights has shown to be critical to the development of a greater understanding of the virus. AI tools have already been effective in analyzing data from people around the world and employing those tools can and will continue to assist in the detection, diagnosis, treatment and development of a cure to end the pandemic.


When healthcare providers and scientists work in conjunction with AI and consider the needs of patients, both individually and at a societal level, AI tools have the power to be transformative in healthcare. These tools not only play a role in identifying and assisting high-risk and high-cost patients, but they have and will continue to play an integral role in propelling the COVID-19 pandemic towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

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[1] “Artificial intelligence (AI): Healthcare’s new nervous system” (2017), online: Accenture

[2]Adam Kassam & Naila Kassam, “Artificial intelligence in healthcare: A Canadian context” (2019) 33:1 Healthcare Management Forum 5-9 (doi:10.1177/0840470419874356).

[3]Thomas M Maddox, John S Rumsfeld & Philip R O Payne, “Questions for Artificial Intelligence in Health Care” (2019) 321:1 JAMA 31-32 (doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.18932).

[4] Arnaud Bernaert & Emmanuel Akpakwu, “Four ways AI can make healthcare more efficient and affordable” (31 May 2018), online: World Economic Forum

[5] “New report shows how AI in health is critical for COVID-19 response and recovery” (9 September 2020), online: Novartis

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Fraumeni, “How AI is enabling COVID-19 research” (17 July 2020), online: University of Toronto

[8] Raju Vaishya et al, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications for COVID-19 pandemic” (2020) 14:4 Science Direct 337-339 (

[9] Ray MacDougall, “NIH harnesses AI for COVID-19 diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring” (5 August 2020), online: National Institutes of Health

[10] Zach Winn, “Bringing the predictive power of artificial intelligence to health care” (18 June 2020), online: MIT News .